Crimes and Punishments,
page 2 of 17
The offence which provoked this assault is not even hinted at, though it may have arisen from the troubled state of public affairs. Captain Praa was a man of influence and dignity in the community, an exiled Huguenot, of remarkable skill in horsemanship and arms. In spite of all this, it appears probable that the sentiment of the community was in sympathy with the two turbulent assaulters and batterers, for they were fined only six shillings and three pounds respectively. They threw themselves on the mercy of the Court, and certainly were treated with mercy.
There are, however, few women-criminals named in the old Dutch and early English records, and these few were not prosecuted for any very great crimes or viciousness; the chief number were brought up for defamation of character and slander, though men-slanderers were more plentiful than women. The close intimacy, the ideal neighborliness of the Dutch communities of New York made the settlers deeply abhor all violations of the law of social kindness. To preserve this state of amity, they believed with Chaucer “the first vertue is to restraine and kepen wel thine tonge.”
The magistrates knew how vast a flame might be kindled by a petty spark; and therefore promptly quenched the odious slander in its beginning; petty quarrels were adjusted by arbitration ere they grew to great breaches. As sung the chorus of Batavian women in Van der Vondel’s great poem:—
“If e’er dispute or discord dared intrude,
’T was soon by wisdom’s voice subdued.”
In spite, however, of all wariness and watchfulness and patience, the inevitable fretfulness engendered in petty natures by a narrow and confined life showed in neighborhood disputes and suits for defamation of character, few of them of great seriousness and most of them easily adjusted by the phlegmatic and somewhat dictatorial Dutch magistrates. In a community so given to nicknaming it seems strange to find such extreme touchiness about being called names. Suits for defamation were frequent, through opprobrious name-calling, and on very slight though irritating grounds.